music is taking over my life

Raise the Roof at the Horniman

Haven’t written anything here (or anywhere else much) for a while, and I blame that pesky singing lark. It has taken over.
We are rehearsing Ramirez’s Navidad Nuestra, carols and RTR stuff for Blackheath Halls on the 16th December, end of term concert for Raise the Roof at the Horniman Museum TODAY!!!! 2.30pm,
and a selection of more unusual carols with Summer All Year Long in aid of Crisis for 17th December,
3pm at Crofton Park Library, 4pm at Hills & Parkes Deli 49 Honor Oak Park and 5pm at The Broca Cafe Coulgate Street Brockley, right by the station.
It’s all huge fun, but time consuming, and there’s always room to be made for just one more extra rehearsal, or (Latin American) Spanish to be written out phonetically and big enough to be read (Score is unreadable), or posters to be designed, printed, distributed.
Would I have it any other way?
But the garden is neglected, I was writing Christmas cards at 5am this morning, and Christmas shopping started yesterday – normally I’d have it all tied up by September!
That said I highly recommend Cockpit Arts in Deptford (and Holborn) for Christmas presents of a very classy kind. I won’t go into detail or everyone will get previews of what will be in their stockings on the 25th… but check out their website.
And when not rehearsing or performing I’m attending musical events.
Highlights recently Coope Boyes and Simpson at the Goose is out, Goose is out singaround at the Mag, two versions of Figaro… and yet to come Lewisham Choral Society at St Mary’s Ladywell on the 10th, and Nunhead Community Choir on the 11th
I had high hopes of getting to lots of the Spitalfields Winter Festival, which has some really exciting things on, but there’s so much on locally that I think I’ll be lucky to make it to even one, and then of course there’s the Welcome Yule at Southbank on the 18th, might try to squeeze that in.
And there’s been less successful outings, a disappointing Eugene Onegin at ENO, which was too static, under characterised, and had a very odd libretto although the sets were wonderful (I worry when the sets are what I’m praising – I also worry when people laugh at Onegin’s anguish when he realises what a disastrous mistake he’s made), I really think rough edges not withstanding our Blackheath production was vastly superior… followed by an APPALLING Castor and Pollux also at ENO, which by comparison made Onegin look like a shining light of dramatic excellence. I know I shouldn’t judge an opera by it’s dramatic punch, but I do, if I just wanted the music I could listen to a disc. Rameau’s music is exquisite and I can’t fault the orchestra nor the singers, particularly Allan Clayton as Castor, but the director showed very little respect for his singers, who were required to (I was going to say act, but really; no) behave like disturbed and sexualised toddlers. I winced for them I really did.

The storyline was rather throw away too, I didn’t much care which of the brothers died and I wasn’t moved by their dilemma, mainly because the production (and lack of it) detracted from the music in a depressingly consistent way. I can only assume the budget for scenery and costume had been blown on the other productions, This was naff, and I was not surprised that Roderick Williams (Pollux) was taken ill, the amount of compost and glitter they were probably breathing in, I hope no one sustained permanent damage… My dad was groaning in anguish and muttering imprecations through out. This would have been better as a concert performance, then we could have allowed Rameau to light our imaginations and conjured up Hell and Jupiter for ourselves, rather than having it channelled for us by Little Britain doing zombiesRus.

I found myself wisting after the productions of Handel (Xerxes, Ariodante) that ENO did many years ago, which were directed with wit and aplomb, and with a knowing nod to the audience; and still manage to move me; I still quote a tiny bit of recitative from Xerxes where Arsemenes is asked to woo his own beloved on behalf of his brother, the timing and phrasing of his ‘I’d rather die’ summed up his entire character.  That was great singing, great acting and great direction.  Handel had a hand in  it too, but Rameau is good enough to deserve that kind of attention.

Enough grumbling, got to go and SING!!

copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Feverish Figaro

To the ENO for the Marriage of Figaro last night, with around 20 fellow Onegin  chorus members, which added to the entertainment value.  We went because Kate Valentine, who sang Tatyana in our production of Eugene Onegin, is singing the Countess, and very relieved we were that she was singing the Countess, as she missed the opening performances due to a chest infection.

There was no sign of this recent illness impeding her, Kate has a phenomenal voice, with great beauty, clarity and power.  It is only with the distance of being in the audience rather than on stage with her, that I truly appreciated just how lucky we were to get her for Onegin.  Up in the balcony (never again in the balcony, uncomfortable is an understatement, I was worried about developing DVT, my feet went numb!) we could hear brilliantly, in fact it was only Jonathan Best as Doctor Bartolo who let us down on that front, he seemed unaware that the top stack existed and projected his voice exclusively at the stalls.

With a piece that will be (very) familiar to a lot of the audience it is important to have a fresh approach without going off the rails.  If I don’t have much to say about Iain Paterson (Figaro), Devon Guthrie (Susanna) and Roland Wood (Count Almaviva) in this production it is because they are wonderful, but equally I’ve never seen a production of Figaro where this wasn’t the case, and in a big opera like Figaro its the quality of the minor characters that sets it apart for me.

Being in the balcony had its advantages with understanding the ever spinning set. (that’s an exaggeration it does stand still a fair bit.) I imagine that from the stalls you only get glimpses of what’s going on behind the front layer, through the windows and doorways, whereas we had a bird’s-eye view of the Almaviva’s household about its business.  There has been a bit of discussion about this in reviews, but I liked it, it freed the action from the confines of the one room and rigid entrance/ exit options and allowed us to witness the characters interacting with others in ways that particularly filled in their temperament and state of mind: The Count pursuing other serving women, and their strategies for staying out of his way; him ignoring the one who rather wants him to notice her.  In fact there is a lot of ducking through doorways to avoid each other going on, and with the steady turn of the revolve, this became balletic and exciting rather than tedious; although I can imagine it making the rehearsal process a lot more challenging, you would need to time the movements a lot more carefully and stick to it; less room for improvising an exit.

There was  something about the hustle and bustle, spying and overhearing, ducking and diving, and pursuit and hiding that puts the main action into context, and genuinely gives a feeling of threat: the Count really is a powerful man who can dispose his favours and his displeasure as he sees fit, and no one, including his wife, is safe from him.  It makes the subterfuge less silly, and more plausible; these are not people with a lot of tools to fight their battles, they have only their wits and the power of ridicule – there is this constant feeling of if this goes wrong we are in major trouble; which accentuated the humour; and the libretto translation by Jeremy Sams, is very funny, there was a lot of startled laughter from the audience; and laughter from something that your audience can anticipate the humour of is quite an accolade.

The cast have no doubt benefited from Fiona Shaw’s acting experience informing her direction, and the chorus get a lot of silly things to do like lugging the Count’s hunting kill into the Countess’s bedroom (was it a wild boar? couldn’t tell from that high, even with binoculars) and mugging their way through Figaro’s conducting of their hymn to the modern thinking of their feudal overlord.

Kate Valentine plays the Countess as addicted to smelling salts and wine, jittery, at the end of her tether and liable to do anything in her misery, even play along with Figaro’s crazy schemes.  Good for her, the Countess is often played whining or sulky and I have never been much on her side before.

I’m always fond of a britches part and Cherubino has some of the best tunes is a dazzlingly satisfying score, and Kathryn Rudge does a superb job both vocally and in her acting; which if a little broad at times doesn’t have that lovesick-calf-mooning-pricipal-boy discomfort that some  singers give it, naming no names.  She does adolescent irrepressibility very well, and is very funny when ‘cross dressing’ to hand over flowers to her/his beloved countess, dress rucked up and proffering an entire rose-bush, roots and all, which is later battered against a kitchen table by the Count. (I bet the gardener had something to say about that).

Marcellina (Lucy Schaufer) is a vigorous, sparky and rather arch madam, and again, refreshing for it.

The costumes are not what you’d call ravishing, but I rather liked the austerity of almost everyone in black with white trim, and there are some wonderful hats.  Against the white walls of the set, it felt more like Flanders than Spain, but then the bull skulls drew you back into the suggestion of bull fighting.  There was some interesting use of projection onto the screen that doubles as part of the set and a curtain; both of live action with shadows and of filmed snatches of the cast in costume and in mufti mainly for the overtures, but also occasionally commenting on the action, a silhouetted horned man, made by the use of sickles stands behind the Count when he thinks he’s being cuckolded.  That mufti seeps out into the action: there are a few deliberate anachronisms, Cherubino wandering around with a cine camera, the Countess in a trench coat and trousers when she threatens to leave the Count at the end, by implication literally walking out of the story, not just her marriage;  Cherubino skipping about in an anorak when he has no more to do.

I do have a nit to pick however, why is Don Basilio (Timothy Robinson) played as blind – or played as playing blind, perhaps?

Overall, an enthralling and charming evening.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The Passenger

So the Wendy Dawn Thompson Fan Club (Blackheath Chapter) were out in force last night, Me and A, M and D (separately, we thought they were going a different night and bumped into them in the bar).  I have to admit I would not have gone to The Passenger if WDT (Vlasta) hadn’t been in it, and she must have had at least 10 lines!

I suppose my enjoyment of Opera is in its extremes of silliness even when being tragic, it needs to be over the top; I like to have a good wallow, and this wasn’t wallowing material.

I was reminded of my Dad saying that what makes a good musical is the book, no doubt quoting someone, but I forget who; and the problem with this opera is that the story isn’t quite strong enough to carry an opera, and the way the opera is constructed weakens it further.

We start on an ocean liner headed for Brazil.  Everything and everyone is white, cold, functional, emotionally distant:  Leise (Michelle Breedt), particularly, is distant with her husband Walter (Kim Begley), off on a posting as German ambassador to Brazil.  Her repetitive Yes, darling, telegraphing her discomfort.  And there’s the problem already, only a few minutes in.  She’s already in a state, before she sees the mysterious passenger.  So any dramatic punch, any disintegration of their relationship as a result of her uncovered deceit, is undermined.  I was deeply unhappy with the dumb-crambo (It can’t be credited as mime) when there were no words for Breedt to sing but the music continued – waving arms and opening and shutting the mouth ain’t acting, and there was some very odd slo-mo walking at times.)  And the ship-board stuff goes on and on, and goes nowhere and adds nothing.  A bold director would have taken the scissors to this – we could have lost all but about 15 minutes without any detriment to the plot or the music.

There is so little light that the shade is just grey mist, it can’t be dark because there’s no contrast, no relief.  Several reviews have made much of the setting of the back story in Auschwitz, some thinking it’s not an appropriate topic for an opera.  I’m reserving judgement on that; but in this instance, it didn’t work.

The set is magnificent, clever, almost witty  (I loved the snick the self-propelling hand rail on the ship makes as it connects.) – but it ovewhelms the action, I was distracted (though enchanted) by the engineering.

The score is eloquent, and played with conviction, although it is a bit heard-it-before hand-me-down Britten-Gershwin-late 50’s dissonance.  (Full marks however for the ‘migraine’ music of  xylophonesque clanging – that is exactly what a migraine is like.)  The male chorus perched above the action like dispassionate observers do stirling work musically, but have some seriously trite commentary (a translation issue??).

I found the mixture of speech and song annoying, the music behind a lot of the conversation largely redundant, adding nothing to the emotional colour or our understanding of the characters, and I detest ‘musical speaking’ (there’s probably a word for it) ponderous, well-rounded, exquisitely projected, but utterly false. Give me Handel recitative any day!

A recounted a story she heard on the radio – one of Churchill’s daughter’s telling of her father weeping over the death of friend in the presence of Stalin, and Stalin saying, (roughly) yes, it’s personal when it is one and known, against the statistics of thousands unknown.

The enormity of the holocaust requires a conduit, a someone we can relate to, and in The Passenger, this is Marta (Giselle Allen), the Polish prisoner Leise is desperate to break.  But we don’t get to know Marta until the second half.  Until then the prisoners are the thousands unknown.  The only moment of connection in the first half is a woman naming her dead children, keeping them alive by speaking their names.

I found it enormously frustrating, I wanted to like this work, I wanted to engage with the characters, and I couldn’t.  I think I was not alone, the queue in the ladies in the interval was silent and gloomy … I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before!

The second half perked up a bit, (I know that’s the wrong word, but it’s how it felt – at last!) as we finally got some kind of plot line, and a modicum of tension.  The relationships between Marta and her small group of friends are sketched in just enough, and are the highlight of the production.  We are introduced to Tadeusz (Leigh Melrose), her fiance and the tool Liese uses to torment Marta. Breedt really goes for it in this section, and Allen and Melrose give as good as they get.

The evening never lifted itself beyond the barely two-dimensional, everyone was trying very hard, but the source material and the direction just wasn’t strong enough.


Copyright Cherry Potts 2011